A Cape Town Farm is Tackling Homelessness From Its Roots

Jesse with Streetscapes farmers | © Darren Bester
Jesse with Streetscapes farmers | © Darren Bester
Photo of Andrew Thompson
Freelance Writer - Instagram.com/andrewthompsonsa5 October 2017

Homelessness in Cape Town, like many other urban areas around the world, is on the rise as are the issues that arise from not earning enough money to be able to afford accommodations or having stable living arrangements. One South African organisation is tackling it from the only way that seems viable—by uplifting and employing chronically homeless people as workers at vibrant urban gardens.

It’s a cool spring morning in Cape Town’s Greenmarket Square. Located in the heart of the city’s bustling central business district, the sound of clanging metal poles—used to make up market stalls—rise up above the excited buzz of conversation. Stall owners pull an assortment of multi-coloured items from weathered cardboard boxes and set them up for display. They’ll sit there until sunset when they’ll then repeat the process in reverse.

Jesse with members of the Streetscapes team | © Darren Bester

Greenmarket Square cleaning project

The historical square has seen many purposes over the years, almost all of them commercial. It started out in the late 1600s as a fruit and vegetable trading post for passing sailors, became a site for the sale of slaves, and currently serves as the principal open-air market for African souvenirs and curios.

‘I wish this square could in some way incorporate a fresh fruit and vegetable market once again’, says Jesse Laitinen, from social solutions organisation Khulisa. ‘That would be incredible. Hopefully one day we can get that going’.

Laitinen looks out across the market, but instead of a cursory glance, she appears to be looking at each individual walking across the uneven surface.

‘That’s Magadien’, she says, picking out a man walking between the stalls. ‘A great guy. He’s our main man over here’.

The spindly man she pointed out saunters slowly across the square towards two others gathered in conversation in the corner. ‘Let’s go say hello’.

‘Magadien was a gang leader’, Laitinen says while walking towards the three men. ‘He was the main subject in Johnny Steinberg’s The Number. He’s reformed now, and if there’s a lesson about how much one man can change, he is it. He’s been working with Khulisa for a while now. He’s a supervisor with our Streetscapes programme, and has done a lot of good work to clean up the square’.

Hands-on approach

Laitinen points out several other people on the square wearing blue Khulisa overalls. Their job is to keep the busy square tidy, for which they earn a small salary. This isn’t a clinical corporate cleaning operation—it’s a grassroots employment opportunity to uplift some of the most vulnerable people who sleep rough in the immediate surrounds. Some of the cleaners sweep the creviced stones, remove cigarette butts and general litter, while others take an early morning smoke break in the warmth of the sun filtering through the inner city buildings.

These individuals working in Greenmarket Square are some of the city’s most vulnerable. Most are homeless, jobless, and have histories of—or are still battling—drug or alcohol addiction.

‘We don’t turn people away because of drugs or alcohol’, Laitinen says en route to Khulisa’s other projects. ‘These are real problems, and we understand it would be nearly impossible to cure everyone of their addictions. Instead, we manage them on a case-by-case basis. Rather than have zero tolerance towards alcohol and drugs, we have a policy that we will accept them into the programme and help them as best we can provided they are not causing harm towards themselves or others’.

This is where the hands-on approach comes into play. Qualified social workers with experience working with people affected by drug and alcohol addiction monitor each individual on a daily basis. They listen to their issues, look for signs of intoxication, and monitor their performance and general state of being.

Thousands live on Cape Town’s streets

In a city like Cape Town, where, according to Mayoral Committee member JP Smith, an estimated 7,000 people sleep on the city’s streets and in various open spaces, it’s clear that the organisation can only make a small dent in the greater problem.

But unlike those calling to eradicate homelessness in the city by forceful means—solutions made moot by landowners at a recent City Bowl meeting—include razor wire, replacing grass with sharp rocks, and an attempt to make the life of homeless people in the City Bowl suburbs ‘intolerable’—Khulisa’s Streetscapes project is looking at long-term sustainable solutions that are socially sensitive.

Streetscapes Urban Farms

Streetscapes believes that meaningful employment is one of the most important steps towards empowering people who have few options and little hope for the future. Individuals who prove themselves in projects like those on Greenmarket Square can move through to their inner city urban vegetable gardens which have been popping up in key locations throughout the city.

Streetscapes vegetable farm at Trafalgar School | © Andrew Thompson

The largest of these is on previously neglected ground behind Trafalgar High School. There, a crew of dedicated gardeners produce a wide range of herbs and vegetables.

‘We sell this produce to several local restaurants’, Laitinen says as she walks through the burgeoning rows of vegetables and herbs. ‘They’re all organic, and we match the prices restaurants would pay if they bought from commercial farms’.

Local residents can also visit the gardens to observe the operations and purchase the produce directly from the farmers.

Many of the people who work in the garden are still living in a nearby informal settlement on disused land, behind a shiny new short-term storage business. This community, consisting of makeshift houses built with an assortment of salvaged material, sits alongside a main thoroughfare into the city. It draws the ire of many passing motorists and according to Laitinen, it’s not uncommon for people to shout obscenities from their vehicles while driving past.

Zamu at work in a Khulisa garden | © Jennifer Venter

‘I’ve lived on the streets since 1984’, says Xolani, who lives beneath a piece of plastic fashioned against a wire fence and secured with rocks and other rubble. ‘We just want to be acknowledged as people, and given some opportunities. We chose this location because it’s out of the way, and not in the middle of the city. But still, people want to push us out further’. He pauses, takes a bite from a loaf of stale white bread, and then says: ‘If there was a rubbish bin for humans in this city I would take myself there and throw myself away because at the moment, it feels as if I’m no use to anyone’.

Laitinen engages Xolani openly and warmly on several topics, and she commits to talking to him and others in the area once again to see how Khulisa may be able to further assist in the future.

Watering the Streetscapes gardens | © Darren Bester

There’s another Streetscapes garden a short walk away on Roeland Street, ironically located behind a branch of a large national supermarket specialising in fresh produce. This 350-square-metre (418.6-square-yard) urban farm sits on previously infertile, rubble-strewn ground. Today, it’s a hive of activity as employees walk the rows, watering and fertilising the neat boxes of herbs and vegetables.

Glimmer of hope for chronically homeless

Many employees working in this small garden had little prospects for gainful employment prior to the initiation of the Streetscapes initiative, and most did not even know how to farm before they started with Streetscapes. Yet in more ways than one, the vibrant gardens they now manage with such skill and pride serve as a symbol of the renewed hope and potential for many working within the Streetscapes programme.

‘We’re not going to fix the homeless situation instantly’, Laitinen says later over a cup of coffee, poured by a graduate on Khulisa’s programme at nearby collaborative community-centric workspace 75 Harrington Street. ‘There is no short-term solution to the issue of homelessness, but if you see how motivated people living on the streets are to work and rebuild their lives, you’ll see how this is an amazingly constructive way to begin to solve the problem’.

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